This post is part of the TV Sidekick Blogathon, hosted by the Classic Film and TV Café.
I love Lucy—but there’s someone I love even more. She’s one of the earliest and best-known TV sidekicks. I’m referring, of course, to Ethel Mae Mertz (née Potter), Lucy Ricardo’s best friend and partner in crime. For me and a lot of others, she is the most relatable of the four main I Love Lucy characters.
Friendship, the perfect blendship
Let’s face it, Ethel is a better friend to Lucy than vice versa. Sure, Lucy might buy Ethel a birthday present or arrange an anniversary celebration, and she helped paint her apartment once. But most of the time Lucy is pretty self-centered and only thinks about getting what she wants, whether it’s a new hat or a part in Ricky’s show. In contrast, Ethel frequently puts herself at risk to help Lucy achieve a goal or get her out of a mess.
Why does Ethel accept such an imbalance in their relationship? I have to think there are some self-esteem issues involved. After all, Ethel is older and frumpier than Lucy. Ethel is saddled with “old goat” Fred, while Lucy has a good-looking husband with a glamorous career. Lucy can get new clothing and new furniture, even if she has to outwit Ricky to do it. But for Ethel, it’s a triumph to get Lucy’s hand-me-down furniture. Maybe she feels that being Number Two is all she deserves.
No doubt she also does it for the fun. Despite her frequent protests (“Oh, no, you’re not getting me involved in another one of your crazy schemes!”) you can tell that Ethel really enjoys the excitement of being an accomplice in Lucy’s shenanigans. After all, what would she do with her time otherwise? Make Fred’s lunch and play bridge with Carolyn Appleby?
The complexity of Lucy’s and Ethel’s friendship is beautifully illustrated in their performance of the Cole Porter song “Friendship” in the episode “Lucy and Ethel Buy the Same Dress.” After the two friends inadvertently buy the same dress for a joint performance at their women’s club’s revue, each agrees to return hers—but neither one does. The day of the show, they meet on stage to find themselves identically attired. Throughout the performance, as they sing about their devotion to each other, the two friends angrily tear at each other’s clothes.
Lucy and Ethel sing “Friendship”
An appetite for laughter
The theme of this blog is television and food, so let’s talk about a frequent punchline on I Love Lucy: Ethel’s appetite. Legend has it that Vivian Vance was contractually obligated to be 20 pounds heavier than Lucille Ball. Snopes.com says this is false. Yes, the show did put Vance in dowdier clothes and less flattering makeup than Ball, but she was never required to maintain a particular weight. The site quotes Vance as saying, “If my husband in this series makes fun of my weight and I’m actually fat, then the audience won’t laugh . . . they’ll feel sorry for me. But, if he calls me ‘Fat old bag’ and I’m not heavy, then it will seem funny.”
And Fred does indeed make fun of Ethel’s weight and eating. In the episode “Annoying Habits,” the couples reveal what their spouses do that drives them crazy. Fred talks about Ethel’s annoying habit at 02:55 in this video clip. Guess what it is?
FRED: Imagine if I let Ethel’s irritating habits get on my nerves.
ETHEL: What irritating habits are you referring to, Frederick?
FRED: It’s nothing. You just said we’d have to over look these things.
ETHEL: What things?
FRED: Oh, let’s not be specific, honeybunch. You’d only get sore.
ETHEL: No I wouldn’t, dear. Go on. Tell me.
FRED: Well, you enjoy your food so much, you eat it with a lot of…
ETHEL: Gusto? Relish? Enthusiasm?
FRED: Well, frankly, the word I had in mind was… “noise”!
Another bit where Fred takes a shot at Ethel’s eating is in the episode “Return Home from Europe.” This is the classic one where Lucy tries so smuggle a gigantic piece of cheese onto an airplane for free by pretending it’s a baby. Then, mid-flight, she finds out she was mistaken—babies don’t fly for free. So she and Ethel eat as much of the cheese as they can and hide the rest.
RICKY: Where is the cheese?
ETHEL: We ate it!
CUSTOMS OFFICER: You and Mrs. Ricardo ate 25 pounds of cheese? Oh, come now!
FRED: Oh, it’s possible. I’ve seen my wife sit down and polish off a whole—
ETHEL (Interrupts): Oh, shut up!
Ethel in the limelight
Remember what I said about Lucy being a bad friend? There are a few times in the series when Ethel almost gets her moment to shine—but Lucy just has to spoil it for her. A prime example of this is “The Club Election.” Interestingly, despite the fact that Ethel is always shown as a follower, her cohorts in the Wednesday Afternoon Fine Arts League seem to recognize her leadership qualities. The outgoing club president nominates Ethel to the top office, saying, “As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one person who should follow me in the office of president. She has administrative abilities; she is charming; makes a good appearance. In fact, she’ll be a wonderful president. And I’m so sure that you’re all going to elect her unanimously, that I want to be the first to shake the hand of our next president: Ethel Mertz!”
Ethel, used to thinking of herself as second best, is astonished. “Me?” she says modestly, hand to her chest. The other women are enthusiastic, and it looks like Ethel is about to be declared president. But Lucy, who has her eye on the presidency herself, can’t let Ethel run unopposed. So she bribes Lillian Appleby (renamed Carolyn in later episodes) to nominate her by giving Lillian a sweater she had admired. After a nasty campaign (“Nertz to Mertz!!”), Lucy and Ethel agree to serve as co-presidents. So Ethel winds up having to share the glory because of Lucy’s selfishness.
Watch the nomination scene below. (By the way, if you’re a fan of The Waltons, watch for Peggy Rea, who played Cousin Rose, as one of the club members. She’s much younger here!)
Nominations for officers of the Wednesday Afternoon Fine Arts League, “Club Election”
Ethel gets another moment in the spotlight—almost—in “Ethel’s Hometown,” the most Ethel-centric episode of the series. The gang is en route to Hollywood where Ricky is set to star in a movie. Along the way, they stop in Ethel’s hometown of Albuquerque. Before she was married, Ethel had had some local fame as Miss Albuquerque and used to perform at a local theater. When the group arrives, they discover Ethel’s father has told all of Albuquerque that Ethel is the one starring in the upcoming movie. What’s more, everyone in town expects Ethel to give a homecoming performance. The local theater has displayed on its marquee the memorable rhyme, “Ethel Mae Potter—We never forgot her!”
At first, Ethel makes some mild attempts to correct the misunderstanding, but soon she is in full prima donna mode. Instead of being generous and allowing Ethel to enjoy the rare attention, her dear friends and her husband decide to take her down. While she is onstage singing, they appear behind her as a circus act, literally upstaging her. She gets the last laugh, though, when their group photo is captioned “Ethel Mae Potter and company.”
Ethel sings “Short’nin’ Bread” and “My Hero” in “Ethel’s Hometown”
I’d like to close this ode to Ethel Mertz with one of my favorite I Love Lucy clips. It’s another one where Ethel sings, this time in an operetta that Lucy has written for their club’s benefit show. Vance, who had a great singing voice, was masterful at using that voice for comic effect. Listen to her trill “I Am Lily of the Valley.”
Ethel sings “I Am Lily of the Valley,” in “The Operetta”
If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out the rest of the wonderful entries in the TV Sidekick Blogathon, hosted by the Classic Film & TV Cafe.